H-Diplo Article Review 921- Wang on Daniels, “Controlling Knowledge, Controlling People: Travel Restrictions on U.S. Scientists and National Security.”

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H-Diplo Article Review 921

28 January 2020

Mario Daniels. “Controlling Knowledge, Controlling People: Travel Restrictions on U.S. Scientists and National Security.”  Diplomatic History 43:1 (January 2019): 57-82. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1093/dh/dhy068.

Article Review Editors: Thomas Maddux and Diane Labrosse | Production Editor: George Fujii

Review by Jessica Wang, University of British Columbia

In “Controlling Knowledge, Controlling People,” Mario Daniels highlights the need for scholars to think more carefully about the relationship between the regulation of travel and concerns with information control by the United States during the Cold War. Although passport denials were relatively rare in the post-World War II decades, scientists, Daniels observes, featured disproportionately in cases where the State Department refused to let U.S. citizens travel abroad (61). Within a twentieth-century era that increasingly tied the production and mobilization of knowledge to the expansion of state power, the ‘knowledgeable body’ of the scientific expert became both a national resource and a potential security threat.[1] Consequently, the need to monitor and control access to sensitive scientific information drew the Cold War state’s attention not just to the movement of concepts and technological objects, but also to the humans whose brains carried ideas, particularly those facts and concepts that the U.S. government considered to be state secrets.

The history of travel restrictions on American scientists in the 1940s and 1950s, Daniels suggests, sheds light on some fundamental aspects of the history of science and its relationship to both American political development and the history of U.S. foreign relations. First, the regulatory challenges of scientists’ mobility did not erupt overnight at the end of World War II, but grew out of the intertwined histories of the rise of bureaucratic regimes surrounding travel from World War I onwards, and the rise of scientific knowledge as an ever-growing and ever more visible source of economic and geopolitical power in the early decades of the twentieth century. Passports, once optional as a means of facilitating movements across national borders, gradually became a requirement of international travel during and after World War I (62-63). Meanwhile, the organization and mobilization of scientific knowledge through increasingly complex institutional arrangements became both a marker of modernity and an object of states’ interests. In the United States, for example, the research apparatus forged among philanthropic foundations, universities, and, by the 1920s, industry as well, along with particular pockets of scientific inquiry within the U.S. administrative state, already formed a wellspring of economic and governmental power prior to 1940.[2] Without these formidable institutional arrangements already in place, one imagines that the massive mobilization of American science during World War II would have looked very different.

Second, the rapid ascent of scientific authority occurred in parallel with the escalating prominence of espionage as both a cultural trope and a political phenomenon. Widely dispersed fears of enemies within manifested themselves through powerful forms of cultural imagery during World War I, and they remained in full force in the years that followed, as part of an “espionage paradigm” (67) that undergirded worldviews about how knowledge flowed, the human intentions behind the movement of knowledge, and the means by which the flow of ideas could be stemmed or halted. World War II constituted the key turning point: “the watershed that put technology, especially ‘high technology,’ and its transfer permanently on the political map, thereby changing the U.S. government’s understanding of the significance and potential threat posed by mobile people carrying scientific-technological knowledge in their heads and hands.” (70) Such a transformation was hardly inevitable—Americans quickly forgot, for example, just how easily technology, technical information, and engineering experts flowed between the United States and the Soviet Union in the interwar years (69-70). In the late 1940s, anti-communists such as J. Parnell Thomas, chair of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, would reinterpret this once-normal flow of information as the equivalent of espionage. In June 1947, for example, Thomas described the Soviet Union’s mining of openly available patent information as “legal espionage.”[3] His allegation was symbolic of how the onset of the Cold War and its associated sense of existential conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union transformed information and knowledge-making into central elements of the U.S. national security apparatus, in tandem with the institutionalization of national security itself as both a policymaking pursuit and a ‘commanding idea’ within U.S. politics and culture.[4]

As Daniels points out, in a new age of total war that depended on the permanent mobilization of science, scientific personnel became a crucial national resource (71-73). At the same time, the high-level secrecy of the Manhattan Project and postwar nuclear endeavors, combined with Soviet efforts to penetrate the wall of secrecy, turned scientists’ knowledge and expertise into objects of regulation. When stories of Soviet-sponsored atomic espionage came to public light in the early postwar years—most notably through reports of a Canadian spy ring in 1946, the arrest of theoretical physicist Klaus Fuchs in Britain in early 1950 for passing secret nuclear information to the Soviet Union during and after the war, and the arrests of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg in mid-1950 and their subsequent trial and execution for engaging in high-technology espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union—nuclear age anxieties fused with evolving Cold War conceptions of national security to transform the mobility of American scientists into a phenomenon that required official attention and oversight. Such scrutiny included the potential to revoke individual scientists’ ability to travel abroad in cases when the state deemed their movements a risk to national security. Hence, Daniels concludes, “the passport control regime is best understood as a building block in the construction of the U.S. national security state in the 1940s” (77).

Through his examination of Cold War era travel restrictions and their effects on scientists, Daniels opens the way towards broader discussions about mobility, modernity, citizenship, and the interplay between the nation-state and the post-World War I international system. Daniels confines his attention to the period from World War I onwards, but one could also place his account of scientific travel and state power within the broader history of mobility and territoriality. Charles S. Maier has written about how the bounded ‘spaces of states’ gradually displaced the fuzzy borders of empires. In the process, the full fungibility of real estate and the transformation of land “into a universal medium, money or wealth” radically disrupted social relationships in multiple settings around the world from the late eighteenth century onwards.[5] Rural peoples deprived of land and of the reciprocal obligations that came with precapitalist notions of land tenure faced growing pressures to turn to wage labor, but at the same time, states invented means to constrain the threatening mobility of labor and implemented harsh measures to keep populations settled and governed. In this new world order, capital flowed with relative ease, while labor remained under tighter regimes of regulation, whether through the combined force of oversight, impoverishment, and threat of violence designed to keep African American sharecroppers and tenant farmers bound to local cotton fields in the post-emanicipation American south, systems of control over labor in the corporate banana empires of Central America, or similarly repressive forms of surveillance and regulation over laboring people in mines, fields, and factories around the world, whether in colonized or metropolitan spaces.[6] In this context, American scientists’ passport woes in the 1940s and 1950s might be understood as part of the broader historical arc of globalization, state power, and the regulation of human mobility both within and across national borders.

Daniels’s analysis of espionage also provides a starting point for thinking about the deeper structural transformations at work in the construction of the American “espionage paradigm.” If spying is practically eternal, as the old canard about the second-oldest profession would suggest, then how does one account for the particular valence that it acquired in American politics and culture in the twentieth century? How and why did fears of espionage become so widely distributed throughout American society and culture, rather than simply remaining a concern of high-level statecraft? The issue still requires sustained historical study, but one can imagine potential lines of inquiry. One possibility might emphasize the role of the post-World War I normalization of the nation-state itself, with its hardened borders and newly robust, bureaucratized notions of citizenship, which arguably enhanced expectations of national loyalties, patriotic vigilance, and states’ ability to control information. This approach would explore how the nation-state structure elevated espionage from a crime against the state to one against all of society. In an early twentieth century era of anxieties surrounding immigration, globalization, and revolution, acts of espionage in the United States connoted not simply specific legal violations, but as manifestations of disloyalty, they became forms of betrayal that threatened the entire body politic. Law and its power to redefine violations into acts of treason also perhaps played a significant role in this heightened sensitivity towards espionage. In recent decades, for example, policies such as the 1996 Economic Espionage Act, which has transformed the sharing of trade secrets from a civil offense into a federal crime if they are judged to be in aid of a foreign power, have blurred the boundary between proprietary rights and state secrets. As I have argued elsewhere, such juridical sleights of hand mean that “the post-Cold War regime of secrecy has actually expanded the number of security threats, simply through the legal redefinition of some forms of larceny that were once straightforward theft of intellectual property, but now constitute espionage, with all of the betrayal of state and nation that the term implies.”[7] The 1996 act constitutes just one element of the vexed category of “sensitive but unclassified” scientific and technical information that in recent years, as Daniels and John Krige have observed, has placed the knowledgeable scientific body in ever-greater legal jeopardy.[8]

Finally, Daniels’s article gestures toward the imbrication of the national and the international. As he notes towards the end of the essay, in the aftermath of World War II, “science became, in stark contrast to the interwar ideals of scientific internationalism, increasingly ensconced within national borders.” (79) This point—which is perhaps even more important than the author realizes—draws attention to an issue that international historians are only beginning to grapple with, namely, the co-evolution of internationalism with the growing institutionalization of the nation-state. In 2013, Glenda Sluga provided an eloquent account of the dynamic relationship between nationalism and internationalism throughout the twentieth century, the co-dependency between these categories within the post-World War I international system, and the ironic entanglements of a global order that tied liberal internationalist possibility to a world made up of sovereign nation-states.[9] Not surprisingly, perhaps, scientists found themselves in a particularly fraught position in such a world, as they attempted to be both cosmopolitan bearers of universal knowledge and also citizens who necessarily embodied “nationality and political allegiance.” (79)

In short, Mario Daniels’s study of American scientists and the problem of mobility during the Cold War draws attention to critical questions for historians of U.S. foreign relations, as well as scholars interested in international and global history more generally. His account of state power and the Cold War regulation of scientific and technical knowledge makes an important contribution towards a more analytically rigorous history of official secrecy and its cultural and political implications, especially as related to espionage. Daniels also provides a means for historians to situate the tumultuous developments of the 1940s and 1950s within a longer durée. As the Cold War recedes further into the past, international and global historians will need to continue to enhance their understanding of how the U.S.-Soviet conflict fit within the broader contours of history, whether in terms of the post-World War I international system and the transition from a world of empires to one of nation-states, the ongoing processes of capitalist transformation and globalization, or the difficult and contradictory relationships between mobility, citizenship, and labor.


Jessica Wang is Associate Professor of U.S. History at the University of British Columbia and the author, most recently, of Mad Dogs and Other New Yorkers: Rabies, Medicine, and Society in an American Metropolis, 1840-1920 (2019). Her current research focuses on tropical agriculture and American empire in the early twentieth century.



[1] Daniels himself has elaborated on the significance of the ‘knowledgeable body’ of the scientist in “Restricting the Transnational Movement of ‘Knowledgeable Bodies’: The Interplay of US Visa Restrictions and Export Controls in the Cold War,” in John Krige, ed., How Knowledge Moves: Writing the Transnational History of Science and Technology (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2019), 35-61.

[2] Olivier Zunz usefully referred to this organizational assemblage of foundations, universities, industry, and the federal government as the ‘institutional matrix’: Zunz, Why the American Century? (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), ch. 1. For a recent study of the exchanges at work between basic research in physics and the expansion of research in U.S. industry in the 1920s and 1930s, see Thomas C. Lassman, Edward Condon’s Cooperative Vision: Science, Industry, and Innovation in Modern America (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018), chs. 2-4. Meanwhile, studies of American political development, which once viewed the U.S. state as having relatively minimal scientific capacity prior to World War II, now accord more respect to the fusion of expertise and state power as far back as the mid-nineteenth century. See, for example, Daniel P. Carpenter, The Forging of Bureaucratic Autonomy: Reputations, Networks, and Policy Innovation in Executive Agencies, 1862-1928 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), esp. chs. 3 and 6; and Megan Black, The Global Interior: Mineral Frontiers and American Power (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2018), ch. 1.

[3] Quoted in Jessica Wang, American Science in an Age of Anxiety: Scientists, Anticommunism, and the Cold War (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1999), 135.

[4] On the origins and institutionalization of national security in mid-twentieth century America, see Dexter Fergie, “Geopolitics Turned Inwards: The Princeton Military Studies Group and the National Security Imagination,” Diplomatic History 43:4 (September 2019): 644-70; and Ira Katznelson, Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time (New York: W. W. Norton, 2013), chs. 9, 11, 12, and epilogue. Daniel Yergin evocatively described the rise of national security as a “Commanding Idea” in Yergin, Shattered Peace: The Origins of the Cold War, rev. and updated ed. (New York: Penguin Books, 1990, originally published 1977), ch. 8, quotation on 220. Consider also William Appleman Williams’ classic notion of Weltanschauung as a way to understand the status and power of national security as an organizing principle and priority of both state and society in Cold War America. Williams, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, 50th anniversary ed. (New York and London: W. W. Norton, 2009; originally published by World Publishing Co., 1959).

[5] Charles S. Maier, Once within Borders: Territories of Power, Wealth, and Belonging since 1500 (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2016), ch. 2 (on the “spaces of states”) and 154 (for the quotation on the fungibility of land).

[6] On the liberation of land and capital versus states’ interests in keeping labor tied to particular locales, useful points of departure include Maier, Once within Borders, 131-34; and Andrew Zimmerman, Alabama in Africa: Booker T. Washington, the German Empire, and the Globalization of the New South (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010). Zimmerman offers particularly provocative insights about the direct connections between the post-Civil War South and German-ruled Togo regarding the forms of governmentality tied to cotton cultivation at the turn of the century. On the harsh surveillance and oversight regimes of the mining sector in different parts of the world, including the guarded compounds used to keep black Africans at work in South Africa’s gold mines at the turn of the century, see Stephen Tuffnell, “Engineering inter-imperialism: American miners and the transformation of global mining, 1871-1910,” Journal of Global History 10 (2015): 53-76, on 63-64.

[7] Jessica Wang, “A State of Rumor: Low Knowledge, Nuclear Fear, and the Scientist as Security Risk,” in “Governing the Security State,” ed. William Bendix and Paul Quirk, Special issue, Journal of Policy History 28:3 (July 2016): 406-46, quotation on 436. See also Adam Gopnik’s recent reflections on espionage and its tendency to be both a necessary part of inter-state relations, as well as completely counterproductive in its effects: Gopnik, “Spy vs. Spy vs. Spy: How valuable is Espionage?” The New Yorker, 2 September 2019, 53-59.

[8] See John Krige, “National Security and Academia: Regulating the International Circulation of Knowledge,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 70 (2014): 42-52; John Krige, “Regulating the Academic ‘Marketplace of Ideas’: Commercialization, Export Controls, and Counterintelligence,” Engaging Science, Technology, and Society 1 (2015): 1-24; Mario Daniels and John Krige, “Beyond the Reach of Regulation? ‘Basic’ and ‘Applied’ Research in the Early Cold War United States,” Technology and Culture 59:2 (April 2018): 226-50; John Krige, “Regulating International Knowledge Exchange: The National Security State and the American Research University from the 1950s to Today,” Technology and Culture 60:1 (January 2019): 252-77. Scholars should also look forward with great anticipation to the book project that Daniels and Krige are currently working on, titled Knowledge Regulation and National Security in Postwar America.

[9] Glenda Sluga, Internationalism in the Age of Nationalism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013).